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Zero-tolerance policy in public schools is too severe

I can see the headlines now: “Nine-year-old student fatally impaled with plastic butter knife,” “Teacher struck by eraser hospitalized in critical condition” and “Student chokes classmate with spiral notebook wire.”

Ridiculous as they sound, those must be the potential incidents running through the minds of members of the Florida Legislature. How else could they fail to pass — multiple times — a bill that prohibits calling police for nonviolent misdemeanors committed by minors at public schools?

Under the Florida zero-tolerance policies, more than three-quarters of the 89,776 referrals to the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice last year were the result of minor violations or simple misunderstandings, according to the FLDJJ Web site.

Among these incidents was the arrest of an 11-year-old Hernando County girl who allegedly brought a plastic butter knife to school — and was charged with a third-degree felony.

Another involved a 15-year-old boy from the same school who received three weeks of house arrest for throwing a pencil that struck a custodian’s shoulder.

Not to mention a 13-year-old Brandon student who was suspended “because his calculator had a knife-like gadget,” according to the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

Referrals should be made in cases of serious and violent juvenile crimes, such as felony sex offenses, armed robbery, assault, auto theft and attempted or actual murder and manslaughter. But shouldn’t there be a legal distinction between those crimes and, say, toting a kitchen utensil?

Monique Dixon, a senior attorney at Advancement Project, a national civil rights organization, thinks so.

“It was clear from the hearings that Florida’s zero-tolerance policy is being used to criminalize petty acts of childish misconduct,” Dixon said to the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. “Behavior once handled by a principal or a parent is now being handled by prosecutors and the police.”

The consequences of the zero-tolerance policy are far-reaching. On one hand, it hurts students, effectively taking them off their academic track by entering them into the
juvenile justice system.

It also gives them a criminal record that, despite what they may think, isn’t just “wiped clean” at age 18 .

“When you get into the juvenile justice system everybody thinks your sins are forgiven when you turn 18, and I will assure you that doesn’t happen. It’s a blemish on your record,” said Sen. Stephen Wise (R-Jacksonville) to the Sentinel.

On the other hand, imposing these harsh penalties is a drain on Florida’S economy.

“School districts have spent millions of dollars for school police officers who spend most of their time disciplining students for conduct that should be addressed by school programs, counseling and parental involvement,” according to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund report.

And so, members of the Legislature, I beseech you: Instead of dwelling on all the possible atrocities that can be committed by youths in public schools, think about the needless turmoil your decisions impose on these children and Florida’s future as a result.

Let’s make the next big headline “State Legislature passes bill overturning zero-tolerance policies.”

Marguerite Faucher is majoring in mass communications and sociology.